Tilbury revisited: Still exotic

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IT SOUNDS unlikely, but I always felt there was something vaguely exotic about Tilbury. As a child, Tilbury meant sea-faring vessels arriving from far-flung places or going off around the world. A rare treat was sitting in a car, close to Tilbury Fort and watching the ships creep along the Thames Estuary. Tilbury promised travel and adventure.

There was history,too. In 1588 Queen Elizabeth addressed her troops at Tilbury – “My beloved people” – as England came under threat from Spain. And in the 1950s, Tilbury gave thousands of West Indian migrants their first glimpse of their new home as they walked down the gangplank of the Windrush.

A few years earlier, my father had also arrived in Britain via Tilbury as a refugee from Nazi-dominated Europe. Along with his friend, Kurt, he looked down the road from Tilbury railway station and saw blacked-out Grays in the distance, and said: “Hvor fanden er vi?”, which loosely translated from Danish means, “Where the f*** are we.”

Thurrock clubs all seem to want to move to a new ground

Tilbury doesn’t get good press, and there’s no doubting it appears to be a hard town. It’s also a town that has been shaped by the presence of the docks that included one of the biggest container ports in the world. Around 1968, I went on a school trip to the Port of Tilbury which had just benefitted from huge investment. Today, if you walk from Tilbury Town station to Tilbury Football Club, a hike of around a mile and a quarter, you pass streets that bear witness to the commercial heritage of the town – Calcutta, Montreal, Ottawa, Malta, Quebec, Auckland, Bermuda and Wellington are all immortalised by roads named after the one-time pillars of empire. It’s not unlike many other port towns in that respect.

Tilbury’s big rival as a container port was Rotterdam. As I have outlined in Game of the People before, the big difference between the two locations was that Feyenoord represented Rotterdam, while a non-league club was Tilbury’s footballing flag-bearer.

Life has been better for “The Dockers”, but in 2015-16 they are enjoying a good season. Chadfields, their home that is tucked away off St. Chads Road, has seen better days, but it’s a big site and the club actually own their ground – unlike many non-league clubs. “We paid for this with the profits of the game with Notts County,” said a Chadfields veteran. “But it’s too big to look after. We need to move on.”

He wasn’t the last person to tell me that the club wanted to relocate. “We thought we were on the verge of a deal, but then the land we were moving to was declared a flood plain, so we can’t move to that area,” said one official, pointing across to the marshy area where the club was supposed to go.

That same area is where a new school sits, Gateway, which is the re-born St. Chads. I played football against this school back in the 1970s and they were tougher and bigger than kids from South Ockendon’s Culverhouse. “The school is already sinking,” joked a Tilbury fan as I picked up a matchday programme. From a distance, it looked a slick new seat of education for the town.

There has been talk of a new stadium for Tilbury for some years – I found a story from the Thurrock Gazette that dated back to 2008. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a team in Thurrock that is not talking about a new home. “Bloody Grays want the council to help them out,” complained one fan. “They’ve got some neck.”

There’s plenty of rivalry between Grays and Tilbury. I recall a couple of fierce local derbies in the 1980s that attracted crowds of 700-plus. Tilbury now draw around 70 to Chadfields, although when they played host to Welling United in the FA Trophy before Christmas, they had almost 200 in the ground. “It’s hard to get people interested these days,” sighed the veteran Docker.

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It wasn’t always like that. In 1949-50, the height of the post-war boom, a crowd of 5,000 crammed into the club’s ground to see them play Gorleston in the FA Cup. They won that game and were drawn away to Notts County in the first round, who at the time had the great Tommy Lawton playing for them as well as Frank Broome and Jackie Sewell. Tilbury were members of the London League and had been runners-up in that competition in 1946-47 and 1947-48. They had won through the FA Cup from the Extra Preliminary Round and had beaten Sawbridgeworth, Leyton, Upminster, Harwich, Barking and of course, Gorleston.

The game at Meadow Lane captured the imagination of the locals. Around 30 coaches travelled up from Tilbury and some fans even went to the Midlands by aeroplane. The media said Tilbury were “as keen as mustard” and had been fortified by hot baths and “a good rub down”. In their line-up was the highly-rated Norton Whipps (which is not a Cotswold town, by the way) and free-scoring George Thompson. Notts County won 4-0, but the press was full of praise. “Tilbury made a match of it.”

It wasn’t until 1977-78 that the club had similar national exposure when they reached the third round proper to face Stoke City. They lost that one 4-0 as well, to a Stoke side that included the late Howard Kendall and Garth Crooks. Tilbury’s line-up included Nicky Smith, a player who I recall as always being referred to as “promising” even when he was not so young. Still, he scored over 130 goals for the club in an extensive career.

Tilbury’s form at Chadfields has been excellent this season

In the years that followed, Tilbury drifted away and after being members of the Isthmian League from 1973 to 2004 and the Southern League in 2004-05, they were relegated to the Essex Senior. They spent just one year at that level and since then, they have been in the Isthmian Division One North.

Under Gary Henty, Tilbury have had their best season since 2012 when they lost in the play-offs after finishing third. Their form at Chadfields has been excellent, although both league defeats at home have been against local rivals, Aveley and Thurrock. They are among the leading scorers in the division and they have two or three players who know how to put the ball in the net – Kurt Smith, Tony Martin and Emiel Akien.

Chadfields looked a little different since my last visit when Game of the People turned up for the game with Haringey Borough. The main stand, which on my last trip, had a roof that flapped in the wind (it always seems to be windy in the seats on the St. Chads Road side), had obviously had a bit of an overhaul. It offers a good view of the game, if you can deal with the chill wind sweeping across from the Chadwell St. Mary (my town of birth) side.

Tilbury lost an 18-game unbeaten run in the league when Aveley won 2-0 at Chadfields on January 19. “Nothing seemed to go right for us on the day,” said Gary Henty. “Aveley came and did a job. We will have to bounce back quickly.” They seemed to do just that, with three clean sheets and a draw at second-placed AFC Hornchurch.  Haringey Borough, however, were struggling and sat in 18th place before travelling Thames-side.

The game, played on a bumpy and muddy pitch, was fairly uninspiring. Haringey started well, with Anthony McDonald causing some problems for the Tilbury defence. But the home side almost scored in the 11th minute when Jack Carlile struck the crossbar with a powerful effort. Matt Game also had a good opportunity when he brought the ball down well and sent a low shot that was easily stopped by Ashley Harris. Haringey’s Rakim Richards also missed a sitter. The second half became a little bad tempered and Haringey were reduced to 10 men when Richards was shown a straight red. Tilbury couldn’t break down the visitors’ defence but in the closing stages, Tony Martin had the chance to win the game but mis-fired from close range. A goalless draw was frustrating for Tilbury, but at least they kept a clean sheet for the fourth consecutive game.

So, 30-odd years after my last visit to Chadfields, the result was the same – 0-0. In fact, I realised that I have seen Tilbury play four times and have never seen them score. And despite the warning to “keep your bag zipped up”, by the elderly Dockers’ fan, all was well. Sometimes reputations can be far removed from reality. I would rather remember Tilbury as being somewhat “exotic”. Whatever happened to those posters at Tilbury Riverside?

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The decline of hinterland football

Grays Rec
YOU CAN TAKE the boy out of Thurrock, but you cannot take Thurrock out of the boy. I’m used to Essex, the county of my birth, being denigrated as a tasteless place full of aggressive people, indeed I have witnessed those qualities myself, but I cannot help feeling a little saddened by the decline of Thurrock football.

Thurrock was an area that rose under Margaret Thatcher as a bastion of working class aspiration. The people were mostly at the lower end of those lists created by socio-economists, but they refused to be subdued by it. It was the land of the sovereign ring, the digital watch, the fast car, the fake tan and the lager top. When I started working in the City of London, people from Thurrock – myself included – were derided as “Essex cheap labour.”

Social commentators, along the lines of the pseudish Jonathan Meades, would tell you that when Thurrock man made money, he flaunted it – characterised by the strategic planting of stone lions on his driveway, feverish acquisition of personal number plates and an over-reliance of branded personal effects such as Burberry raincoats and LV luggage. Essex man had cash wadded-up in his back pocket and he had his own dialect – estuarine English. There, that’s all the stereotyping out of the way.

Essex represented the new breed of football man

As for football, Thurrock has non-league clubs in abundance: Aveley, East Thurrock United (a Johnny- come-lately club), Grays, Purfleet (another arriviste) and Tilbury. Outside of Thurrock, you have Canvey Island (the old land of the Kings), Billericay Town and Hornchurch (another past tale of excess). It wasn’t quite the North East hotbed, but Essex, in the late 1980s and 1990s, represented the new breed of football man – brash, loaded and not afraid of testing the accepted ideals of the Corinthian. The establishment non-league clubs didn’t take too kindly to Essex man making good on the football field.

It should come as no surprise that Thurrock is tailor-made for football. It’s on the fringes of Greater London – despite some people tagging Thurrock as the “east end”, Greater London ends at Havering. That’s not to say that Thurrock isn’t full of folk that have come out of “the old East End” or at least had grandparents from places like Bromley-by-Bow, Poplar, the old docklands and Stepney. South Ockendon, for example, had a huge estate built in 1969 that housed the London refugees, and it was popularly called “the GLC estate”.

There’s a large contingent of West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal fans along the Thames. It was always a stronghold of Hammers’ support – Geoff Pike, who played almost 400 games for West Ham, was a pupil at our school. The Upminster to Barking train was always full of people going to home games at Upton Park. Doubtless it still is today.

The public allegiance to London clubs (and, by the way, Southend United is in the opposite direction) has always weighed heavy on non-leaguers in Thurrock. But in the 1980s, when Britain started to open-up its economy and council house ownership changed the property landscape forever, a cocky swagger and self-confidence seemed to sweep across the Thames hinterland. As Thurrock started to benefit from the huge shopping village known as Lakeside, the area acquired a very different persona from the traditional dourness of Thameside Essex. Working class businessmen with a “few bob in their pocket” started to get interested in football.

Aveley FC - On the move soon?
Aveley FC – On the move soon?

In Aveley village, you turn into Ship Lane and drive for a few minutes to a site that used to be known as Bushy Bit, and latterly Thurrock Technical College. There’s now a hotel with a football ground attached to it. The club was originally known as Purfleet, although that village-cum-town, once renowned for being a beauty spot on the Thames, is some distance away.

Purfleet’s driving force was – and still is – Tommy South, a well known local figure. Tommy and Harry South acquired the derelict college and created the Thurrock Hotel, which is just a goal-kick away from the traffic hurtling down the A13, Thurrock’s signature road. It is the borough’s route 66.

The club was formed in 1985 and played in the Essex Senior League. With the indefatigable South – 24 hours spent at the ground –  at the helm, Purfleet performed miracles to work their way through the lower levels of the non-league pyramid, often playing before miniscule crowds. The problem was that you really couldn’t walk to Purfleet’s ground, unless you wanted to risk your neck under the wheels of a suped-up Escort.

Ten years after formation, Purfleet were an established Isthmian Premier club, and by 2005-06, they were in the Conference South. They also featured on TV in the FA Cup and generally, were seen as a club punching above their weight. .It could never be sustained, given the small crowds and, dare I say, over-reliance on too few people to keep the club going.

Aveley – potential home of a new super club?

Purfleet became Thurrock as non-league restructured itself. This was a strange move and was bound to upset the club’s neighbours. In hindsight, it would be interesting to hear if anyone now regrets that decision. The renaming would have been more appropriate if Thurrock had created critical mass through a merger. For example, with Aveley Football Club just one and a half miles away, was there not a chance of a merger of the two clubs to create a Thurrock “super club”?

Thurrock fcAveley are right at the end of their village, almost in the Kennington estate of roads named after rivers – Usk, Severn, Tamar and Teviot – and a hefty swing of the golf club away from Belhus Park. Around 18 months ago, Aveley got the go-ahead for a new ground at the park, with the aim of starting 2015-16 away from Mill Road. It all seems to have gone quiet on the subject, but there has been some resistance to development in Thurrock. Earlier this year, another plan to build more than 500 homes in Aveley was rejected with the message that people in Thurrock are “sick and tired of over-development adding increasing strain to our infrastructure.”

Strangely, that development in Aveley was going to benefit Grays Athletic and not their current landlords Aveley. This would have provided the funding of a new ground at Treetops School for a club that is a classic boom and bust story. When I was young, nobody really watched the Blues and their Recreation Ground home was what was best described as “characterful”. But I recall the huge floodlights that towered over the tight terraced houses and chimney pots.

The club came alive in the 1980s when the Saxton twins, Jeff and Fred, led a team from the Athenian League right up to the Isthmian Premier. Grays were long-ball exponents and heavily criticised for it, but the Saxton’s made optimal use of the resources at their disposal and in Micky Welch, they had an outstanding striker.

Grays acquired a second wind and won promotion to the national Conference in 2005. The club was then under the leadership of Mickey Woodward, former chairman of Barkingside and the archetype “self made man”. To quote Grays fans, he was an “east end geezer made good”.

Woodward’s reign was full of drama and high ambition. Grays won the FA Trophy in 2005 and 2006 and finished third in the Conference. Grays’ Recreation Ground was refurbished to accommodate a higher level of football. Crowds went up to 1,500 and words like “Football League” entered the local dialogue.

But the zeal turned sour. Woodward, who had a “love-hate” relationship with the club’s fans, and had threatened to walk away on more than one occasion, left Grays in 2009. He had earlier taken over as manager. In 2010, Grays finished bottom of the Conference and lost their ground. The Rec was owned by Ron Billings, a farmer-come-property developer, and when he died, the family wanted to sell-up. Grays, who had effectively been bailed-out by Billings in the 1980s when they were at a very low ebb, found themselves without a ground after their 20-year lease had expired.

They had to quickly agree a groundshare and it was East Thurrock United who came to the rescue. Unfortunately, the size of the ground meant that Grays had to drop down to Isthmian League Division One North. It was a humbling experience – crowds quickly went below pre-Woodward era levels to around 200.

Since then, Grays have played at Rush Green, near Romford, and now Aveley. On paper, they are still Thurrock’s top club, but without a home of their own, Grays cannot build solid roots. That may change soon, for a few months ago, Grays announced that they had the money to build a new ground. This came after something of a public appeal for funds to ensure the club could move back to its home town. Interestingly, the Aveley development that was kicked-out by Thurrock Council was proposed by Mickey Woodward’s company.

The decline of attendances in Thurrock

  Shift 2015-16 2014-15 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11
Aveley -36% 117 89 80 105 181 181
East Thurrock 0 170 217 191 171 174 169
Grays Athletic -5% 211 203 230 201 235 223
Thurrock -67% 101 97 92 199 292 309
Tilbury -30% 71 72 64 89 111 102

Across the cycle – 40 years of Thurrock football

  15-16 10-11 05-06 00-01 95-96 90-91 85-86 80-81 75-76
Aveley IL1N ILP SLE IL3 IL3 IL1 IL1 IL1 IL2
ETU ILP IL1N ILP IL2 IL3 ESX ESX ESX n/a
Grays ILP IL1N CONF ILP ILP ILP IL1 AL AL
Thurrock IL1N CON-S CON-S ILP ILP IL2N n/a n/a n/a
Tilbury IL1N IL1N ESX IL2 IL2 IL2N IL1 IL1 IL2

AL – Athenian League; CONF- Conference National; CONF-S – Conference South; ESX – Essex Senior League; Isthmian League – P Premier, 1 Division One, 1N One North, 2 Division Two, 2N Two North, 3 Three; SLE- Southern League Division One East.

New grounds all round?

As well as Aveley and Grays, East Thurrock United have been talking of acquiring a new ground. They only moved to Corringham in the late 1980s – I recall their first games at Rookery Hill when I lived in Stanford-Le-Hope. They’ve come a long way, but they look poised to move to Billet Lane in Stanford, presumably to be closer to a rail link.

East Thurrock - set for Billet Lane?
East Thurrock – set for Billet Lane?

That leaves Tilbury, the poor relation of Thurrock football, although they do own their Chadfields ground. It has been a long time since the Dockers had anything much to cheer about. They did reach the FA Cup third round in 1977-78, losing 4-0 to Stoke City. There was a player named Nicky Smith who spent a long time (1975-1986) with the club and was always known as “the promising Nicky Smith”. And then there was Joe Dunwell, who also played for Dagenham.

Tilbury, as a town, benefitted from the closure of some of the Port of London’s docks. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tilbury became one of the biggest container ports in Europe. It was, and probably still is, a tough place and the home of the Tilbury Trojans, a skinhead gang that you didn’t want to be on the same train as if you were heading up to London Fenchurch Street.

Tilbury have struggled for a long time, hence they dipped into the Essex Senior League in 2005-06 for a single season. Their crowds are small, struggling to get above 100. It’s difficult to see what sort of future they have.

Ripe for a merger

Five teams in a relatively short space suggests that Thurrock is over-clubbed for the modern age. A couple of mergers could create two decent-sized clubs that split the borough. East Thurrock United and Tilbury could form one club and Aveley and Thurrock another. You can hear the protests already, but with crowds as low as they are, how many people really care about these clubs’ continued existence?

Distance in miles between clubs (Grays is taken as Grays, the town)

Population Gate % Aveley ETU Grays Thurrock Tilbury
Aveley 8,000 1.46 X 12 5.5 1.6 8
ETU 15,000* 1.13 12 X 8 10 8
Grays 36,000 0.59 5.5 8 X 4.8 3
Thurrock 12,000 + 0.84 1.6 10 4.8 X 8
Tilbury 12,000 0.59 8 8 3 8 X

*Combined population of Stanford-Le-Hope and Corringham
+ Purfleet

Grays, with a far bigger population than the other clubs, can stand alone quite comfortably, and with a new ground, could expect to pick-up more support than they currently enjoy.

With the right marketing and investment, the east can rise again

What next for Tilbury?
What next for Tilbury?

When you consider the clubs’ average gates versus population, only Aveley and East Thurrock are currently getting more than 1%. A meeting of minds may create the substance needed to compete. The only alternative is the inflated investment of a benefactor and as Thurrock’s clubs know, that can only be short-term and result in the type of rise and fall that [sadly] epitomises much of non-league football.

I said earlier that Thurrock is not part of London, but it is dangerously close to London and non-league clubs in London struggle to win over football fans that prefer to walk around with West Ham, Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool shirts on their back. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Thurrock is a football area, make no mistake, and given the right [realistic] investment and strong marketing, the men from the Thames hinterland can rise again.

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twitter: @gameofthepeople

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July 14, 2013: Would strike action help Thurrock’s cause?